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ROME â€” In the weeks leading up to Italyâ€™s presidential election, President Sergio Mattarella made it abundantly clear that he was retiring.
But after almost a week of political gridlock, and infighting that exposed deep divisions in the governing coalition, Mattarella has been coerced into staying on, in the interest of stability. His decision averts the imminent threat of early elections. After votes for Mattarella reached the majority of 505, MPs in the Chamber of Deputies stood up, applauding and exchanging high-fives. Internet memes in Italy on Saturday jokingly depicted Mattarella as a hostage.
Parliamentarians and regional delegates began voting on Monday to find a successor for Mattarella, whose seven-year term expires on February 3.
The president has the power to appoint prime ministers and cabinets and has wide-ranging powers in times of crisis. The left has had the advantage over the past three decades. But this time with neither right- or left-wing blocs able to command a majority, lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on a unity figure.
With Italy in the midst of a punishing fourth wave of COVID and facing the double challenge of safeguarding the economic recovery and implementing the EUâ€™s post-pandemic investment fund, pressure was growing on political leaders to avoid an impasse the country could not afford.Â Â
As party leaders failed to make progress, rebel lawmakers increasingly backed Mattarella in the daily ballots, with his tally rising from 125 on Wednesday, to 387 in the first round on Saturday. In the end, Mattarella garnered 759 of the 1,009 possible votes.
After six failed rounds of voting, Prime Minister Mario Draghi intervened and asked Mattarella to stay on, according to a person familiar with the situation, and lobbied party leaders to converge on the plan.
Party representatives formally went to the presidential palace to appeal to Mattarella. â€œGiven the situation, we begged him to stay for another term,â€ SenatorÂ Julia UnterbergerÂ said. Mattarella said he â€œhad other plans for his futureâ€ but given the situation would make himself available, UnterbergerÂ said.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right Forza Italia party, said that unity â€œtoday can only be found around the figure of President Sergio Mattarella, of whom we know weâ€™re asking a great sacrifice.â€
Supporters saw Italyâ€™s position as strengthened. â€œItâ€™s a net win for Italy,â€ said centrist MP Bruno Tabacci. â€œAt the G20 last year, all the other countries recognized the authoritative leadership of Draghi and Mattarella. Now their leadership has been confirmed the government is in a position to meet the requirements of Europe, manage this delicate phase of COVID and relaunch the economy,â€ he said.
â€œYou donâ€™t change a winning team,â€ regional delegate Dino Latini said. â€œIt could be seen as not very innovative, but with this decision the parliament, government and Italyâ€™s image have all been saved.â€
Mattarellaâ€™s election means Draghi will stay on as prime minister, avoiding early elections. Draghi himself had been considered a candidate, but failed to get wide backing from the parties because of the difficulty of finding a replacement prime minister who could command the same governing majority. A major obstacle was anxiety among parliamentarians about early elections, after which many expect to lose their seat due to cuts in the size of the parliament.
Giorgio Fede, a senator with the 5Star Movement, said that it would have been wrong to elect Draghi. â€œIt was not the moment to have a political crisis,â€ he said.
â€œDraghi was given a job, to manage the pandemic and the recovery fund, both still apply today so itâ€™s right to allow him to continue his work,â€ Fede said.Â
Not everyone saw the result as positive. The opposition Brothers of Italy voted against Mattarella. 5Star Senator Sergio Romagnoli said that while Mattarella is â€œvery capableâ€ the decision represented â€œa failure of politics.â€
The 5Star Movement failed in their attempt to elect Italyâ€™s first woman president, Romagnoli pointed out. â€œWe would have preferred a woman. We had the opportunity to turn the page, create new energy. But we had to work together to find an agreement,â€ he said.
With the election over, Draghi must attempt to rebuild his unwieldy coalition, no easy task following the breakdown in trust. After failing to get support from all the parties, Draghiâ€™s own standing took a hit, but his decision to be part of the solution is likely to help him regain authority.
It is likely that a realignment will be needed. On Saturday night, 5Star leader Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini of the League requested talks with Draghi for clarification on the government program and to identify new priorities.
Maurizio Gasparri, senator in Berlusconiâ€™s Forza Italia, said the coalition forces would need a little time to get back to normal, but was confident it would remain standing until the end of the legislature. â€œIt is needed to deal with the emergencies,â€ he said.